I’m not sure exactly when I started watching Wheel of Fortune, but I know it was early. I remember Chuck Woolery being the host, so it had to be between 1975 (when it debuted) and 1981 (when Woolery left over a contract dispute). Even as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed word puzzles and this was right up my alley.
Wheel of Fortune bills itself as America’s game, but it has over forty different versions that air throughout the world. It often places in the top two when lists are made of the best game shows of all time. (Jeopardy is usually the number one.)
Part of its appeal may be its simplicity. A player spins a wheel, chooses a letter and tries to solve a Hangman-style word puzzle. That’s it. No need for complex varieties. No need to spend five minutes covering all of the rules. It’s incredibly straightforward.
It wasn’t always that easy, however. In the early days, instead of receiving cash awards, the contestants would have to spend their winning on various items shown in miscellaneous “showcases”. A guest room showcase may feature recliners, stereos, lamps, and many assorted knick-knacks. Each item had a price tag and they could buy any and everything they wanted up to the amount of their winnings. Any small amount not spent could be put in an account (and added to a future win) or put onto a gift certificate.
The shopping portion was phased out in 1987 (when they probably realized that watching someone shop is not so exciting). In October of that year, they ran a “Big Month of Cash” promotion which just awarded cash and no prizes. It was obviously a hit because they never looked back.
The show continued with very few changes for another ten years before Wheel entered the computer age. Previously, when boards needed to be changed between games, the board was rolled off stage and production came to a halt while they waited for all of the letters to be replaced and set up for the next round.
On February 24, 1997, Wheel introduced a new computerized board consisting of 52 touch activated monitors spread across four rows. All the hostess had to do was touch the monitor in the bottom corner and the letter would magically appear. This sped up the turnaround times between rounds, which meant tapings were shorter and less expensive.
Pat Sajak and Vanna White have been involved since 1982. In those days, there were two entirely separate versions: a daytime broadcast on NBC and a syndicated program that ran at night.
Sajak stopped doing the early show in 1989 in order to handle his short lived talk show cleverly titled, The Pat Sajak Show.
In his place, NBC hired Rolf Benirschke, a former placekicker for the San Diego Chargers.
To no one’s surprise, the morning edition was cancelled barely five months later.
It came back a few years later and cycled through various hosts, including a stint where Vanna White was your MC. But that’s getting even further off track than I have already.
All of that was basically just a precursor to say that Wheel of Fortune has gotten to a point now where it can almost run on autopilot. They are as close to perfection on just about every aspect of the game.
But it didn’t start that way.
In fact, there were many bumps in the early roads. The first of which was made in 1973 and was called Shopper’s Bazaar. It was initially created by the head of NBC as a way to boost female viewership during the daytime, so the primary emphasis was on shopping. The puzzles were merely a means to an end. That end, of course, was piles of fabulous cash and prizes.
There is very little resemblance to what we know today, so let’s focus on what’s different. As soon as the show begins, we’re taken into what looks like a department store showroom filled with large furniture pieces and appliances. A handful of women wander around until the announcer introduces the first player.
Marilyn is shown chatting up a young woman wearing a ginormous necklace – “An Indian Squash Blossom Necklace” as we’re told. This is the first prize Marilyn has selected. And if you think that seems a little backwards, you’d be right.
In this version, the contestants choose their prizes in advance and then try to earn money towards them by playing the games. Whoever gets the most money keeps whatever prizes she was able to afford.
In addition to the necklace, Marilyn also picked out a selection of “vintage wines and assorted cheeses from around the world” and a “double door self defrosting refrigerator”. PLUS for her most elegant selection, a sterling silver and crystal tea service with gourmet china, “furnished by Tiffany’s”.
Total cost for her choices: $5400.
Dawn is next and she wants an assortment of kitchen appliances including a microwave, “his and her” dirt bikes, and a full length ranch mink coat.
Total value: $5250.
Finally, Maureen has selected a classic writer’s desk, a set of Gucci luggage and… (wait for it…) A NEW CAR!! A 1974 Pontiac Firebird, to be precise.
Total value: $5350.
This brings up the obvious question. Was a new car a choice for all of them? I can only assume they were given a max value of something like $5500, but wouldn’t they all just go for that? Haven’t cars been the grandaddy of all prizes on game shows? I think of how excited people always got on The Price is Right when Johnny Gilbert would yell, “A NEW CAR!!”
Maybe Marilyn already had a few new cars at home, so she settled for the fridge. (It was self defrosting, after all.) And maybe Dawn would use the dirt bikes more than a 4 wheeled vehicle. But isn’t Dawn kind of getting the short end of the stick? Her prizes are worth $150 less than Marilyn. Shouldn’t she have picked up that wine package or something?
And is it just me or do these intros seem like they could have been straight out of the credits for Three’s Company?
After they’re introduced, they walk over to 3 chairs and sit down. No podiums, no buzzers, just 3 easy chairs. If nothing else, they’re some of the most comfortable players in game show history.
Not sure why this struck me as so peculiar, but hey also bring their purses with them to their seats. You don’t see that on Jeopardy.
At this point, we see the host, good ol’ Chuck Woolery. Chuck’s looking incredibly nervous for this show. It was still early in his career, so it may have just been nerves. Or he could have an idea that the show just wasn’t very good.
Chuck’s first job is to chat up the contestants. Right off the bat, we get a sense of the vibes for the day:
Chuck: Marilyn, I see you’re playing for the wine cellar. Do you enjoy good wine?
Marilyn: No – we’re just big drinkers.
Once the game gets going we finally see the wheel in action for the first time. Unlike the horizontal wheel we’ve come to know and love, this is standing up, like you’d see in a casino or an amusement park. It spins constantly until one of the contestants says, “Stop the wheel.” At that point, Chuck uses a signaling button to briefly pause the wheel.
And when I say “briefly”, that exactly what’s I mean. It stops for approximately 1 second and immediately starts spinning again. If you weren’t paying close enough attention the first time, you’d never know where it stopped.
Like the modern version, the wheel had various dollar amounts & “Lose a Turn” spaces, but also zero dollar amounts. No money was earned, but you got to keep your turn. And that money was important.
Remember those prizes they selected at the beginning? Any money they earned from the puzzles was put towards those prizes. They would start with the least expensive prize first and work their way up. For example, Dawn’s appliance package cost $850, so that’s where her first money went. Once she accumulated more than that, any new money moved right up to the next prize.
Bankrupt wasn’t a thing yet, so the money just kept building. However, they wouldn’t actually get any of those prizes unless they solved the puzzle. At that point, any prize that was fully paid for was theirs to keep.
The puzzles were just like we see today: A person, place or thing (although they weren’t told which one). Players could either stop the wheel, solve the puzzle or buy a vowel. I guess they really wanted to push the vowels because Chuck would mention “buy a vowel” every time the wheel started spinning again.
Every. Single. Time.
If I had to guess, I’d say Chuck mentioned it at least forty times. Interestingly enough, the price for a vowel was $250. The same price it is today. How has that never changed in nearly fifty years?
This spin & guess pattern continued on for four very long rounds. Unlike the modern wheel, where things move at a brisk pace, this was downright monotonous. It was fun to watch the players get super excited and/or frustrated, but the game just went on far too long.
Finally, once the fourth puzzle was completed, the player with the most money got whatever prizes she had money to pay for. Plus, she got to play the final game for a totally random prize. Why didn’t they let her play for the rest of the prizes she actually wanted? We’ll never know.
The final puzzle was partially filled in with just the vowels. The player had thirty seconds to add a single letter and guess the prize. If the letter they chose wasn’t in the puzzle, they got to keep guessing until one was added.
After calling out four bad letters, Dawn chose properly and guessed that her prize was a trip to the Isle of Capri.
Since this was just a test show, I wonder if she actually got to keep any of her prizes ?
The show was completed and sent to the executives at NBC who ripped it apart. They said it was slow and boring. Test audiences had a hard time following the rules of the game. And this first show ran much too long at over 30 minutes. (Most shows, after allowing time for commercials, run about 22-25 minutes.)
The entire experience can be summed up by one quote from Mr. Woolery. Halfway through the game, one of the women was taking a very long time to pick a letter. There was no 3 second clock or anything yet, so she just kept biting her finger and deciding. Finally, Chuck told her: “Make a choice quick or we’ll be here until Search For Tomorrow.”
Search For Tomorrow was a soap opera on CBS.
This show was being made by NBC.
There are so many things here that need to be seen to be believed. The wide shots of the set clearly show the men behind the puzzle board revealing letters. The players aren’t given the category for the puzzle, but can win a phone call to clue them in. And the glue desperately trying to hold it all together is Chuck. The complete pilot episode is included below if you dare to watch:
But the fun didn’t stop there. Remember, this was just the first test show. They still had another horrible version to try before settling into the Wheel we know today.
Make sure to check out Spinning Wheels, Part 2 for the rest of the story.